Picuí, and other small towns of Brazil

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When I was visiting Minha Namorada over Christmas, Meu Sogro (my Father-in-law) invited us to visit his hometown, Picuí, as he was excited to show me where he grew up.

Getting there was an adventure on its own. Driving in Brazil is already a scary concept for a Canadian, but the drive between Joao Pessoa and Picuí has its own special set of fears. As we had to drive uphill, there were fifty-six button hook turns on the highway. The roads in this area were well-maintained, but the numerous monuments to loved ones on the roadside attested to the danger that drove the need for well-maintained roads – we would hardly pass 50 feet between the roadside crosses. However, this does not slow down the Brazilian drivers. Every car I saw was travelling well above the speed limit, and cutting the corners, lightly honking the horn to tell any driver on the other side of the turn that they were coming. I have rarely feared for my life while driving, but this was definitely an exception. Later I was told there is another, slightly slower, route that has no such turns, and we took that way home.

When Minha Namorada and I went to step outside, she asked me if I was “ready for hell”, because of the heat. And, while I do admit it was hot (definitely above 30 Celsius), I told Minha Namorada that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Joao Pessoa. It was hot, but much of the Brazilian Interior is extremely dry, and Picuí is one of the driest of those. As people will often attest, its the heat, not the humidity, and a little bit of shade went a long way in Picuí. Picuí is located in a place called the Polígono das secas (Drought Polygon). It has droughts unrelated to Climate Change (although that doesn’t help), and, when I visited, they had gone five years without rain – the former river beds had become football fields, and most farms in the area raised goats, which can eat cacti. It actually rained above two weeks after we left Picuí, and Meu Sogro sent me a video of the people outside cheering and watching the giant storm. It warmed my heart to see their prayers for water had finally been answered.

Now, Picuí is a small town, and small town Brazil is a lot different than the big cities. They are very reminiscent of small town North America, and while there are still a few more walls and gates than you might normally see here, there isn’t the need. Crime levels are generally less, because everybody knows everybody, and watches out for one another. There is also not the same level of distinction between rich areas and favelas. Very nice houses can be close to poor ones, and so you never know until you get somewhere what the place will look like. The Priest for the small town is one of the most important people in the city, and things tend to move at a slow pace.

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The Churches in small towns are some of the most beautiful buildings.  I didn’t actually make it inside this one, as Meu Sogro knows the Father of the church in a nearby city, Cruzeta.

 

Prices in restaurants are very cheap – Minha Namorada and I had a large stuffed crust pizza, with four beers and a pop for less than 30 Reals (about $10 Canadian at the time) – including a cover charge for the band. I don’t necessarily recommend travelling to these towns for the average traveler, as there is a lower chance people will speak English. Accents also differ significantly, as they do anywhere, but I can never really guess who I will understand when speaking Portuguese. Trained politicians are sometimes harder for me to understand than an average joe off the street. But, I will say that everyone there is extremely welcoming, even compared to the warm greetings I have always found in the rest of Brazil.

The big event of the year in Picuí, as it is for all the small towns in the region, is their Carne De Sol festival. The centre of many small towns we drove through were clearly built with this in mind, as I couldn’t imagine many gatherings that would require so much space in any small town otherwise. During these events, all the surrounding towns visit, and the places are packed to the brim. These events appear to happen regularly, but varying from town to town, and create a wonderful sense of comraderie and good natured rivalry between the cities.

I can’t say for certain if Picuí is a good representative of small towns in general in Brazil, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

aCanadianInBrazil does Venice

Venice, or Venezia in Italian, is probably the most beautiful cities Minha Namorada and I have ever seen. Wherever we walked, we couldn’t help but stare at all the beautiful buildings nearby.

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The canals in Venice were wonderful, we just took the bus (read: public transport boat) and looked at all the beautiful architecture

One important thing to know about Venice before visiting is that there are no cars, or motorized vehicles of any type. In fact, it was only on one island where we even saw bicycles, and those were owned by little kids. So, if you aren’t into walking, including many stairs, then Venice isn’t for you. Minha Namorada and I didn’t know this when we first arrived, and so we had some confusing times searching for a taxi stand; there are taxis, but only water taxis, which are expensive, and they can’t even take you everywhere. Generally speaking, you’ll do better to buy a water bus pass for however long you are there – Venice isn’t big, so you can easily walk lots of places, but if you need to get to the other side of the canal, a short distance can still be a long walk if you need to find a bridge. Minha Namorada also found it was wonderful to ride the water bus and see the sites.

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In the center you can see the Water Bus, with outdoor seating in the front and back, and indoor seating in the middle.

Minha Namorada and I probably chose one of the best times to visit Venice, as we arrived when there was the Covid-19 scare, but nothing was shut down yet. That started about 36 hours after we left. So, we had a city that was nearly empty, but all the stores were still open. We got discounts at every store we went to, and never had to wait in line once. The only place we weren’t able to visit was St. Mark’s Basilica, which was only open for prayer – we still went and prayed, but there was obviously much more inside that we couldn’t explore. If you could be guaranteed to not get sick, I’d highly recommend you visit a place right before a plague hits.

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Venice was empty enough, but we managed to get other inhabitants to pose for our pictures.

When in Venice, you’ll see all these things that look like tables stacked near buildings. Minha Namorada and I couldn’t figure out why until out last day, when we saw first-hand an obvious fact about Venice; it floods a lot. The tables are actually mobile elevated walkways that they move so that you can get around the City even when the water level is high. Some stores get flooded, but they just discount that merchandise, and continue about their day. Flooding is just a part of life in Venice. As much as you might save money on the discounted merchandise, you don’t want it. The water in the Venice canals is not very clean at all.

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This is inside Piazza San Marco on a normal day.  It was so devoid of tourists that the birds were actually land on people en masse trying to get food.
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And here it is just a couple days later, as Minha Namorada and I passed through on our way to the airport.

Venice is a very expensive city. Even meeting other tourists, they complained about the prices. The cheapest places we found to drink were actually Irish Pubs. And, it is always interesting to see one culture’s take on another culture. McDonald’s was the same, as always, though. Even so, Minha Namorada and I spoke extensively about how nice it would be to move there.

The airport in Venice takes quite a long time to get to. It is over an hour from the grand canal to the airport (again, by boat – not included in your normal water-bus pass), and then probably a fifteen minute walk to get from one side of the airport to the ticket counter.

Journal Day 8

Fast forward seven months, and its my next trip to Brazil. In the meantime, Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had grown much closer, we spoke every day on WhatsApp (video calling is a godsend to long distance relationships), and she had spent a large part of the summer with me in Canada.

This time, I felt much more comfortable walking into her home after a long flight, smelling terrible after 24 hours of travel, and craving a shower – this was a big sign of how welcome her family had made me feel from day one of my first trip. We didn’t hang out too much at her home though, as Minha Namorada wanted me to see the Sunset from downtown and so whisked me away after just enough time to stretch my legs and say hi to her family.

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The couple just ahead of us were speaking in English – it seemed they couldn’t understand each other in their native languages, so they used English as a universal language.   

While I did get some beautiful views, we missed the sunset by about five minutes. Downtown João Pessoa is beautiful though, as I’ve mentioned. It used to be the richest neighborhood in João Pessoa, and the architecture reflects that, but large swaths of downtown are now abandoned. The rich having moved to the coast to be right next to the ocean. Being unable to resell these properties for their values, they have now been long abandoned, and an uneasiness has settled around the downtown core.

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This is not a safe place to be at night, although during the day there are still many tourist attractions worth checking out – just start early, and leave after sunset. That being said, there are still busy bars downtown, so its not all parts that are unsafe. The basic rule is of safety in numbers still applies. If you want to go at night, make sure to check with your hotel if its a night where one of the downtown bars is having a large gathering, and then Uber directly there and back.

Downtown even has a thriving Chinatown community, where everything seemed incredibly similar to a China Town in Canada that, if not for the language. My first trip, I had barely seen any foreigners other than myself, and there are definitely less in Brazil than in Canada (for example, Japanese and Chinese restaurants tend to be staffed by ethnic Brazilians), but there are still lots of expats in Brazil. This trip, my suitcase had broken a wheel, and we went downtown to get it fixed – that is another lesson I liked from Brazil, there is a much stronger emphasis on fixing things that are broken, rather than just throwing them out and buying new. For 45 Reals (about 20 dollars) my suitcase was as good as new.

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Hot Temaki – my mouth waters just thinking about it.

I also insisted that first night that we have one thing I had been craving since I got back to Canada from my previous trip – hot temaki. Brazil has taken the wonderful taste of sushi, and they deep fry it in batter similar to chicken-strip batter, and it is one of the best tasting (and horrible for my waistline) foods that exists.

Recife

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Sandro Helmann [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I will freely admit that I did not get a good first impression of Recife. My first time in Brazil I flew into Recife, but the airport, and highways out of town (we were staying in João Pessoa, 1.5 hours away), are near some favelas that are not nice. In addition, I had just flown for over 24 hours (including the layovers). I felt a bit uneasy about Recife, and Minha Noiva (My Fiancée) even apologized for the part of Recife we were in, and told me not to judge Brazil by that area. To be clear, it is not all of Recife, just the area by the airport and the highway out of town that was a little bit rundown. There is also a bit of a city rivalry between João Pessoa and Recife (think Toronto-Ottawa, Calgary-Edmonton, or Montreal-Toronto), and with Minha Noiva’s family living in João Pessoa, I have to be loyal to her city. My trips to Recife have always had a specific reason, rather than simply enjoying what Recife has to offer. My next trip will involve a lengthy stay to see the sights in Recife, and I’m hoping to change my opinion of the City.

That being said, Recife is actually a very well-known city in the Northeast of Brazil, being one of the three biggest locations for Carnival in Brazil (the other two being Rio de Janeiro and Salvador). Despite Carnival not starting until February, events begin in Recife in November or December, and even that early tourists start to arrive.

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A bloco party on the streets of Recife Raul [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
They regularly have indoor-outdoor block parties you can attend (called blocos) and random live shows either outside, or inside bars – remember though, like many cities in Brazil, if you are in a bar and a band starts playing, you may be expected to pay something towards their compensation. It is worth it as Brazilian Music is wonderful, but just be aware.

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A frevo dance and music performance Prefeitura de Olinda [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As a major tourist destination, there are lots of English on signs and in malls – one of the most unusual sights I saw was a Ben & Jerry’s, where all the signs were in English, except for the actual names of the Ice Cream, which were still made up of English puns.

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Praia de Muro Alto Cleferson Comarela [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Recife is named after the reefs just off its coast, so you can imagine that it has some beautiful beaches. However, you need to be careful in the water there, as the reefs are not coral reefs, and so the beaches do not have the same protection from sharks that other beaches along the Brazilian coast have. Attacks, while still rare, are more common on the beaches here than in other locations. In fact, surfing has been banned on the beaches of Recife specifically because of the risk of shark attacks, and swimmers are specifically warned by many beach signs to avoid swimming beyond the reefs. Personally, I stay on the dry land.

Natal

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Mário Monte [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Natal, which was founded on December 25, 1599 (and shares the Portuguese name for Christmas), is a city in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, and has a rich history with a large population of expats. The city was one of the first major tourist areas in the state, largely because of its strategic location during World War 2.

Natal, while not the absolute closest, it is still about as close as you can get to Africa from the Americas, while simultaneously being one of the closest points to Europe in Latin America, and so was a staging area for the North African Campaign during World War 2. As is common with places where soldiers train, many of the Allied Troops fell in love with the city and returned after the war to settle. There are clearly lots of expats and foreigners, because I was pleasantly surprised to find, at more than one bar, hockey was on TV, and English was common throughout the city.  Natal still hosts a major training centre for the Brazilian Air Force.

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Centro de Cultura Espacial e Informações Turísticas (CCEIT)

Natal, owing to its location near the equator, also has nearby the Barreira do Inferno Launch Center, which is a rocket launch base of the Brazilian Space Agency.

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Natal, which is near Praia da Pipa, also has some beautiful beaches, although that leads to one unfortunate consequence for tourists – nothing is open during holidays because everyone expects you to be at the beaches during the day. Places open for brief lunches, but when Minha Noiva (my fiancée) and I arrived after a long drive, nothing was open for supper until late. We eventually found a bar that let us have drinks, but we couldn’t find anywhere to eat before 6. while it is a bit annoying when I’m hungry, I do like the calm and laid back attitude that everyone is just expected to “go relax at the beach.”

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The view from a hill overlooking some of the beautiful beaches of Natal
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Praia do Cotovelo, from the patio of Falésia Restaurant

This is not for a lack of customers though, Minha Noiva and I went to a tourist favourite shrimp and risotto restaurant, Camarões, and it was busy minutes after it opened. Brazilians don’t gorge themselves like some Canadians do though, and when I ate far too much risotto (with desert on top!) I did get some long glances from the wait staff. They even tried to suggest it was too much food I was ordering. (Note: I do not recommend eating as much food as I did, but the cheese and shrimp was just too good to stop)

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The Serving size was for four… I may have eaten the entire thing (Minha Noiva helped)

João Pessoa – Points of Interest

As I have written about before, I have a special place in my heart for João Pessoa. It may not have the fame of Rio De Janeiro, or the size of São Paulo, but it is the first city I explored in Brazil, and it is where Minha Noiva (My Fiancée) calls home.

João Pessoa is not without its own landmarks or attractions that make it unique, and a wonderful place to visit, and if you are looking for great photograph opportunities, here are three great locations:

1. The Easternmost Point in all of Mainland America, Ponto de Seixas.

Even to people who have no familiarity about Brazilian geography, I can always easily describe the location João Pessoa. South America comes roughly to a point (or a horn) on the Eastern side, and João Pessoa is located exactly at the end of that point. This is as close as you can get to Africa without leaving travelling to an island.

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Ponta do Seixas                                                                  irene nobrega [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Atop a nearby cliff, called Capo Branco, there is a lighthouse, which most people confuse with the actual Easternmost point, Ponto Do Seixas (always go to the Wikipedia article in the local language, using Google Translate, rather than assuming the English article has the full story, especially if the English article is a stub). Capo Branco does give a much better view (and is better for the lighthouse’s functionality), but the location of a large landmark so close to the actual location, causes much confusion.

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Cabo Branco Lighthouse  Pbendito assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are looking to visit though, always ask for directions to Ponto De Seixas, not Capo Branco. Since there is a neighborhood named after the Cliff, which will just add to your confusion.

2. Saint Francisco Cultural Centre, Centro Cultural São Francisco

While most people would either know, or could guess, that Brazil was formerly part of the Kingdom of Portugal, far less would know that parts of Brazil were one time conquered by the Dutch. Saint Anthony’s Convent (a part of the Cultural Centre), while initially built by Friars in 1589, was used as a fortress by the Dutch during their occupation from 1630 to 1654.

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Centro Cultural São Francisco

The Friars then returned for three centuries, but shared their space in 1885 to 1892 with a School of Marines Apprentices, and the Military Hospital, before eventually becoming a Seminary (until 1964) and Diocesan College (until 1906). Eventually, the site became a Cultural Centre, but remains one of the most beautiful churches in the area, having been renovated over centuries, in baroque style, with extremely ornate details and adorned in gold.

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It also houses some of the most important artwork a for the Brazilian Baroque style.

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Glorification of the Franciscan Saints by José Joaquim da Rocha, Manuel de Jesus Pinto, José Soares de Araújo, or José Teófilo de Jesus  – there is some controversy over the true artist.
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Another view of the Glorification of the Franciscan Saints, from where the choir sits during Mass

3. Global Hotel, Hotel Globo

This is a beautiful hotel built in 1928 that used to host presidents of the country. It was located here for the beautiful view over the Sanhauá River, over the same river as the Praia de Jacaré sunset, and in the heart of downtown, but recently it has become a heritage museum noted for its unique neoclassical influenced architecture. The sunset remains just as beautiful, but the area was abandoned in the mid-1930s, due to construction of a new port, which caused a mass exodus of the elite to the newly developed beachfront area. The area has become a time capsule of that period of time in Brazil, but being in an abandoned area, I wouldn’t visit it on foot, or stay well after dark. I highly recommend you go to see the sunset from the gardens, just don’t stay too long afterwards.

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Sunset at Hotel Globo